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Bad Aliens, Meme Armor, and Intelligence in the Universe

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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These are two posts from the Life, Unbounded archives. They were written in April and May 2010. Around that time there was a lot of media noise about aliens – brought on in part by Stephen Hawking’s comments about fearsome “nomadic” lifeforms that might roam the universe. I’ve merged the posts here. As far as I know the idea about “meme armor” is an original one.

Debate about “intelligent” life in the universe is tricky. It’s long been colored by wild extrapolation, optimism, pessimism, and downright fantasy. But there is a need to think about it responsibly, because the question is real enough. The SETI program and SETI Institute have held out against many challenges to do just this. While I prefer an approach based directly on the blossoming science of exoplanets, it’s still fun to take the occasional dip into more speculative terrain.


A simpler time (Image: public domain)

It was amusing to see discussion in the media based on some comments by Stephen Hawking (all good promotional material for his most recent TV offering). He raises the notion that it may be very, very bad for us if we ever come into contact with intelligent aliens. This is of course not exactly a new idea, but it can take on a number of forms – some more interesting than others. The Hollywood version is that advanced aliens might just be mean, hungry, and well armed. The version that I think is worth a bit more thought is to do with the slightly (only slightly) more realistic case where, rather than descending on us with hefty weapon-bristling spaceships, the aliens are simply communicating with us from afar.

Ideas, it has been said, are dangerous things. A distant, intelligent, alien race could tell us stuff that might shock us, confuse us, and possibly destroy us – all without ever leaving their home planet. They might actually be trying to be friendly, but inadvertently light a cultural, philosophical, and scientific fire that sends humanity up in smoke. It could be like showing a medieval baron how to make a nuclear weapon, or something more subtle and insidious. Richard Dawkins coined the term ‘meme’ for a unit of cultural ideas or practices – and it’s appropriate here – memes can propagate, much like a virus. An alien meme (‘the universe is going to end in one year, and we have proof’) could tap into our most lemming-like instincts and make it very hard for us to function as a species.


Presumably a sufficiently advanced alien species would understand the potential consequences of their communications, so would they still do it, or would they clam up and fall silent – neither wanting to damage other races, or risk being damaged themselves? For the sake of argument I’d propose that their best strategy would be to build an automated communications system, designed to engage any species unlucky enough to catch its whispers – but to never report back to the builders. This machine would be their meme-armor. It would effectively dispose of other civilizations in cases where the exchanged memes were bad, and keep the others guessing – perhaps it would even feign cultural collapse, to divert attention elsewhere. The clever aliens could go about their happy lives, having either wiped out annoyingly talkative neighbors, or seemingly dropped off the map.


Intelligent Life: Exhibit A

It really must be in the water, or perhaps it’s the 50th anniversary of SETI. Yet again I’ve found myself in recent days trying to answer questions about whether or not there’s intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.  Yet again I find myself in the role of sourpuss, or is that skeptic ? One item that actually helped focus this for me was another question on how aliens might show up brandishing their weapons and licking their lip-like-features, before squishing humanity.


Let’s just go through this. Do I think there’s life – recognizably familiar, reproducing, information carrying arrangements of molecules – elsewhere in the universe? I think there’s an awfully good chance (but this is not a statistically robust statement). Do I think any of it’s “intelligent”, like wot we are? Well, I think the odds are far worse, but given the size of the universe then sure, it just may be tucked away somewhere we’ll never, ever, know about. So, on the face of it this kind of kills the notion of the mother-ship arriving over suburbia and hordes of iPhone wielding creatures texting us into submission. Except…well, except that there’s another way to look at things.

I’ll start by saying that I know this is not an original idea. Let’s take the history of life on Earth. Intelligence – in the form of machine creating, modeling, mathematically fixated organisms – has not played a big role over the past 4 billion years. Dinosaurs were fabulously successful as a type of life, a hundred million years of romping (plus all the chickens running around today), extraordinary adaptations and variations…but not a wheel, differential equation, or moon shot in sight. Humans, by really all measures, are freakish – an extraordinary and wonderful oddity. This doesn’t even begin to address the issue of the microbes, ancient and incredible terraformers and survivors, but no intelligence in the way we define it.

Given all of that, I think in-the-incredibly-unlikely-event that aliens show up on our doorstep they will be no smarter than your average jellyfish. They will not have built spaceships, at least not the way we think about spaceships, with flush toilets. They might have built some kind of structure to carry them through space, much in the same way that ants build a nest, or hermit crabs snag a nice shell, but they won’t be doing this as an outcome of design review, they’ll be doing it instinctively. These will be organisms that have evolved to treat space much like we treat the oceans. Sailing, drifting, or zooming, when they find a useful resource (if they need such things) they make planetfall and set to work, maybe like locusts, or maybe less destructively.

Is this crazy? Maybe, but less so than the other options. There are still significant physics problems. Assuming any such life originated on a planet, then climbing out of that gravity well is always going to be tough. Perhaps this filters out all but the tiniest organisms, lofted up to the exosphere, evaporated out into space. Or perhaps it filters out all but the oddities….

Obviously I should stop drinking the water.

Caleb A. Scharf About the Author: Caleb Scharf is the director of Columbia University's multidisciplinary Astrobiology Center. He has worked in the fields of observational cosmology, X-ray astronomy, and more recently exoplanetary science. His books include Gravity's Engines (2012) and The Copernicus Complex (2014) (both from Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux.) Follow on Twitter @caleb_scharf.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Further On 5:34 pm 07/25/2011

    Mr. Scharf has not been doing very much research. If he were to google the “Battle of Los Angeles” of Feb. 1942, he would learn of an early radar tracking from the northwest of a device too fast to be a blimp and to slow to be an airplane (about 100 mph)- coming into LA towards midnight. The newly-deployed dozens of wartime searchlights picked up the hovering ship at about a mile altitude, and our anti-Japanese AA-guns opened up, firing about 1440 shells in 90 minutes– a rate of one every 4 or 5 seconds. These were four-inch shells- and many hit the target, apparently harmlessly. That’s one shot every 5 seconds– how many Los Angelinos do you think slept through the barrage– there were hundreds of thousands of viewers. After 90 min. the device moved off to sea– leaving four dead on the ground, injured by falling shell fragments. The first editions of LA papers had a photo and lots of witness stories, and there is a record of heavy phone traffic between officials and the White House and Pentagon. The second and later editions of the papers had no story at all– it had disappeared.
    OR: He might look at the 30 Poloroid photos (almost impossible to manipulate) in the book “The Gulf Breeze Sightings”, detailing a score of visits by at least 3 apparently allied ships near Pensacola FL over six months in late ’86 and early 87. Other photos were shot independently by several persons, and over 100 residents saw one or more of the ships. They mostly moved slowly, then disappeared at far above mach speeds.
    These are perhaps the best-documented sightings known to the public, although there is very convincing evidence that the famed Roswell event did involve something much more massive than the ‘weather balloon’ later claimed by the government. Some other governments have declassified much of their military’s records on UFOs– ours hasn’t. If Mr. Scharf would put his energies into getting full disclosure of what is locked in the record, much of it gathered by US military pilots and investigators, he could stop speculating and we could all get on with gathering more information about the marvelous universe in which we live– and which we surely share. “Further On” -in the DC suburbs

    Link to this
  2. 2. Torbjörn Larsson, OM 8:11 pm 07/27/2011

    These questions aren’t really orthogonal, as relativity affects both.

    - Obviously relativity over these distances gives there will never be any economical trade between interstellar systems beyond “the market of ideas”.

    Which leaves the only threat as colonization. That will not be feasible on already inhabited worlds, since the invader and his biosphere is not adapted to the local environment (including the existing biosphere).

    So that is a trivially boring area of questions. :-D

    - Same goes for the Fermi question that underlies SETI. Here you can put many hypotheses, as the parameter space is unknown. Likewise, the likelihood that any one is correct is small.

    FWIW, here is mine: It is far easier to colonize the local Oort cloud, that will give you all the resources you need (habitats, volatiles, organics, fissiles or perhaps fusiles for energy). As soon as that is done you will never be tempted by the cost and risk (and sheer problem of reinventing descent from an environment of low gravity conditions) into steep and deep gravitational potentials.

    So no risk for colonization, with or without Fermi question. Also, random Brownian motion tells us that a reasonable Oort cloud colonization front would not had anywhere the time to cover the Milky Way as of yet.

    As for intelligence, I currently favor the model that biologist PZ Myers gives. It is the usual well founded skepticism of biologists against claims that intelligence is nothing but the odd trait.

    But look at his model, described in the context of his 3d picture from the end. Earth diversity process have been efficiently restarted between mass extinctions. (Albeit with history between.) He sees them as models of different “worlds”. That in reality would have the same series of extinctions.

    So 1 out of 3 land “worlds” produced intelligence, a fairly high percentage for old inhabited worlds to produce them; a (1-1/3)^3 or ~ 30 % risk of having all non-intelligent life @ 5 Gy age. That is optimistic! (O.o)

    @ Further On:

    “Mr. Scharf has not been doing very much research.”

    Don’t be absurd, he is a researcher as you can see in his CV.

    On the contrary what you relate has nothing to do with science. Plural of unevidenced anecdote is not “data”.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Torbjörn Larsson, OM 8:19 pm 07/27/2011

    “It is far easier to colonize the local Oort cloud,”

    Actually, as a comic from the usually correct xkcd taught me, the hardest (longest) step in colonization is to the Moon. That is, if we assume that exponential growth will map to a logarithmic scale of capabilities such as travel length.

    The planets are easy stuff and the Oort cloud is the 2nd hardest. The stars are relatively trivial. :-)

    My assumption is of course the natural that we will adapt and then remain in the niche that gives us most ROI. That is the Oort cloud niche, it gives you a galaxy of habitats.

    Link to this
  4. 4. pkoneil 1:12 pm 06/5/2012

    I can’t say I’m very keen on the terms thrown around in such discussions as this. “Is the other intelligent life in the universe?” (implying that WE are intelligent…open to question). The universe is incomprehensibly huge, virtually infinitely so. If there is intelligent life elsewhere in the UNIVERSE then it may as well not exist because we will NEVER be able to converse, even with a time delay, and would likely never even be able to detect their presence. The only meaningful question is, “Is there intelligent life in our galaxy”? You may even be able to get away with asking about intelligent life in our immediate satellite galaxies. From only these locales are we even reasonably capable of detecting them…so long as they use wide beam radio signals at extremely high power. Of course, why should we expect an advanced alien culture to spend literally hundreds, even thousands of years, broadcasting nonstop into space on the off chance that someone might be down-broadcast and picking them up? We cannot even continue a single space program like travel to the moon for more than a decade yet for sending signals out into space to announce our presence – that would require many many many generations. Ridiculous. I think it is ridiculous to think ANY alien species would do this either. The level of committment and the dedicated resources required would be unfathomably huge.

    Link to this

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